Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov. 2005)
REVIEWS BY C and D
C: I feel dutybound to advise you that we shall be reviewing many records today that have shall we say significantly progressive overtones.
D: It should be no problem. I came prepared. [smiles mischievously] With beer.
Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom
D: This is Cat Power covering Patsy Cline. After a plate of lasagna.
C: Are you sure?
D: I cannot be sure, but I feel it to be true. I am trusting my intuition. My blink-of-an-eye insight.
C: Looks like you got something in your eye. This is Jana Hunter, from Houston, Texas.
D: The home of Mike Jones?
C: The same.
D: I see. What would you call this?
C: I dunno. Downbeat lo-fi folk music with a touch of glum? But it’s more lonesome than depressing, and she tries a lot of different approaches in arrangement, texture and just general aesthetic.
D: There is definitely a deep longing at work here.
C: The album title hints at a sense of bleak but playful humor—you know the way it mimics doom metal phrasing, half believing it, getting off on how suited to these times this exaggerated language is becoming, what with all the war, pestilence and natural disaster. But sonically this is obviously not High on Fire, so you get a little wink there. Her guitar lines can descend towards doomland like Sabbath.
D: Sometimes I see where she gets the title from…
D: Spectacularly beautiful.
C: Quiet English folk artist who made a single, slightly psychedelic album in 1970 with various Incredible String Band personnel and so on, and was then lost to the world. Championed by Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Four Tet, who’ve all collaborated with her during the internet era. I think some of them are on this but you just spilled your beer on the notes from the record publicist.
C: Anyways, her first album was re-released last year and here’s the follow-up. Next album is scheduled for 2037.
D: She sounds the same as last time. There’s an almost Burt Bacharach-like feel to this.
C: Yeah the orchestral hook is sweet.
D: They’re very shy, mellowcholic songs.
C: There’s more piano than one might expect. Very pretty, very modest. Quite a comeback, eh?
D: She saved a little…
D: [instantly] I like this band. Make it louder!
C: [turning it up] Andrew W.K. meets Guided by Voices: power-pop played with Marshalls.
D: A melodic Fear. Big influence. [increasingly ecstatic] Perfect music for smart hooligans! You can quote me.
C: I am.
D: “Let’s Nail it to the Moon” is like Blondie’s first record. And “Spend the Night On Me” is full-on Lazy Cowgirls.
C: [quizzical look]
D: Aha, you don’t like them, but they have mighty hooks! “Teenage Frankenstein” is righteous rock, I’m telling you.
C: Who on earth would call their record Raw Power? At first you think they don’t know what they’re doing, then you think they’re just stupidly audacious, then you find out they’ve been around since like 1988 and so it’s just a great reverse inverse record-geek joke.
D: I never heard of M.O.T.O. But they have heard of themselves. They are their biggest fans. They’re like, ‘This is our Raw Power.’ And they’re right: it’s two giant balls on fire!
C: [looking at sleeve photo of mixing board] Notice that everything’s recorded at level Infinity. [calculating] The singer must be like 40 years old. Perhaps he is a schoolteacher too…
D: “Flipping You Off With Every Finger That I Have” is song title of the decade.
C: A good ol’ American fistfight. Those don’t happen too much anymore. What if fighting was in? I don’t mean Fight Club. But you know, hipsters going to other areas of town to get drunk and fight in public.
D: [repeating lyrics] “The moon in the sky/Kicks the ass/of the stars/they all fade.” This is true. Every song has a certain drunk-at-midnight, howling-at-the-moon-in-the-bar-parking-lot anthemic quality.
C: Their label has the best name in recent memory: Criminal IQ.
D: [confiding] It is said that there is a certain IQ where anyone who has it will eventually commit a crime. It’s like 116 or 115 or something.
C: Interesting. [listening to “Girl Inhale”] Anyway, this is an homage to the Beatles tune “Girl” that is so obvious it’s great. And is so great because it’s so obvious. It’s the folk tradition: this is how songs used to change over generations. The keyboard solo is a rip of “In My Life.” I wonder if every song is like that and we only are catching the most obvious ones.
D: I am saluting the mighty M.O.T.O. with every finger of my hand.
Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up
C: Another start-to-finish classic from one of America’s very finest record labels, the Numero Group out of Chicago.
D: They are number one!
C: This one is a collection of singles recorded between 1960 and 1980 in Belize. Amazing stuff, lots of covers of American soul hits, some reggae stuff too, all infused with this special feel. There’s a warmth—an ease—that’s absolutely seductive. You can just get glimpses of their accent.
D: [repeating lyric] “You can’t go half way, you got to go all the way/to have all my love.” Song of the third date.
C: Numero Group specialize in upending every notion you have that there is, or has ever been, a meritocracy in pop. They prove that human achievement on this planet is continuous and happens wherever people have time on their hands. It does not take place in the easily circumscribed times and places and sequences that VH1 or self-appointed music experts like ourselves—
D: [Snorts, beer comes out of nose]
C: —like to place it in. The energy is always-there-everywhere, it’s just a matter of whether you’ve found out about it yet. Remember M.O.T.O.? They’ve been going since 1988, they’re in our own country, and we only just found out about them. Think what’s been going on in other countries for decades! We don’t know anything! Admitting ignorance is the first step towards enlightenment.
D: [definitively] Numero Group are international cargo crate diggers of the first order. They should be awarded United Nations medals of honors for service to mankind.
C: Okay, time for a snack. [Offering a jar of tiny pickles from Gelson’s] Tiny pickle?
D: That’s what she said. Wait a second! That’s not what I meant.
Choubi Choubi! Folk & Pop Sounds From Iraq
C: Songs from our musically oriented friends in Iraq, much of it recorded in the Sadaam Hussein era.
D: I like this! You know, maybe we wouldn’t bomb them if we listened to their music.
C: Sublime Frequencies, who were spotlighted last issue in Arthur, also deserve special recognition and financial reward for service to humanity.
D: [looking at sleeve] It says here that this song, “They Taught Me,” is in the style of “1970’s Socialist Folk-Rock.”
C: Very helpful, D. Now, please pass the shisha.
D: [listening] This one sounds groovy… I am at a loss for words—
C: But not at a loss for beer—
D: [glares] Silence in the lower ranks!
C: It turns out that my favorite is the “Choubi” style, which sounds very Indian movie soundtrack to my untrained ears: odd rhythm, acoustic string instruments, orchestral strings, a woman ululating with a choir.
[listening to track 5] Is this one called “bee attack”?
C: No. Although there is an instrument being used called, which is Arabic for “wasp.” By the way, it says here on the sleeve that music was regarded as very important by Sadaam Hussein: he apparently called musicians the “seventh division” of his forces. But musicians themselves are not really highly regarded in Iraq. They aren’t really stars. Professional musicians are usually outsiders and outcasts, who play weddings and parties and illicit nightclubs, a recording is made to keep the artist going between gigs… gigs as income, recordings as low priority… songs are immediately public domained and any popular, locally pressed recordings are pirated… Is the music better or worse for existing in this way? I dunno. If you were to judge American music solely on the basis of each year’s 20 best selling albums, you wouldn’t say our system is outputting much to speak of. Could it be that music is worse in a corporation-ruled market system than in a dictatorship with zero intellectual property laws? If you were a musician and you’re being pirated and you’re not getting songwriting royalties and nobody is getting rich off your labor—stall merchants were just getting by, selling tapes, and in the process getting your name out there—would you care about piracy? You might be pissed off a little, but then again, chances are you built on what was there before you too. And anyways, you’re doing fine.
D: I would like to drink to this and swivel my hips. Generally just do that thing.
C: I don’t think you could get in a bar fight to this.
D: Or a war.
Radio Pyonggyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom
C: Paging Mike Patton, please come to the Lost & Found. We have your Mr. Bungle demo. But seriously: this is a whole record of North Korean stuff: “field recordings, television/radio intercepts and live performances” from 1995-1998. Album two in Sublime Frequencies’ Axis of Evil collection. I guess Iran will be next.
D: There is something special here but I think it takes a certain mind to appreciate it. [smiling] Which I have.
C: I dunno, this is a bit too schmaltzy for me. Where’s the funk? Sounds like that shitty Thai pop you hear sometimes. In the interest of peace between nations, I want to get to this but I can’t.
D: [musing] How can we hate them when they’re so awesome?
Phoenician Flu and Ancient Ocean
D: [explodes] Whoa! WHOA!!!! What have you let into this place?
C: This band almost caused a riot at Arthurfest when they played the first day downstairs in the theater. Socks were blown off. Heads were on their cel phones telling people to get over here NOW.
D: I can hear why. WHOA. Fuck me, this is some full-on majestic streetwalking cheetah thruster guitar rock in Satty-like collage. Man!
C: Year they’re like cousins to the Comets on Fire bros, spiritually speaking.
D: Another strike force from Santa Cruz!?!
C: It’s a question that needs an answer: What exactly is going on up there in the banana slug republic to generate this kind of Hawkwind power gazer goner stuff? I can hear some Dead Meadow blisswork bursts in there too—and Crazy Horse search-soling as well. And Acid Mothers Temple yawning-sound journeying, heavy Bonzo drumming. Amazing.
Hyper Magic Mountain
C: New riff-blat super-attack from the Providence, Rhode Island artcore guitar-drums power duo.
D: The cover art matches at least the first eight seconds.
C: [reading sleeve] “Humans chill out! There is no back-up planet!”
D: Cathartic art attack. They must be a ball to see live.
C: They have some definite hits here., like track 2, “Captain Caveman.” Reminds me of Unsane, Big Black, Helmet, Killdozer, Slayer: everything on that label Amphetamine Reptile used to sound like this. I guess that sound went pretty mainstream with more ink and noserings but there was always some infant-mind tantrum rapping on top of it. But this is more like the original stuff to me, more imaginative and nature-loving, and, as they say, “mastered for metal loudness.” You gotta dig the lyrics: “Health is all the wealth I need/birds and squirrels and bees and trees/all the things that ride the breeze/money makes the world go round/drags it down and burns it out/I am the caveman/I am the timebomb…”
D: Time for another beer. I’ll be in the fistfight in the other room.
We Are Wolves
Non-Stop Je Te Plie En Deux
C: Another band with a wolf-related name. From Canada. They are Canadian wolves: hear them howl.
D: [Returning with two newly opened beers in hand, enthusiastic] I like this! It sounds like what doing really good coke feels like.
C: Um. I was gonna say these guys sound like it what I had hoped ARE Weapons or that second Faint album would sound like but that’s damning with pretty faint praise.
D: It’s almost like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Or Devo, even.
C: An agitated, slightly angry Devo. Or Fat Possum’s own gonzoid Bob Log III: churning stuff, guitar and vocals set to high-distort.
D: Canadians freaking out with a drum machine.
Boards of Canada
the campfire headphase
C: We are surely not the first people to say this but: bored of Canada. Dull down-tempo, melody-free, quasi-postrock beats for snoreheads. I’m sure they’re perfectly serious about what they’re doing but it all says soulless doom to me.
D: They need to move to Santa Cruz as soon as possible.
Danger Doom: The Mouse & the Mask
MF Doom & Dangermouse
C: MF Doom all over this doing funny, smart stuff. [singing along] “His name is Doom, they wonder just who is he…” And Ghostface is on here still rhyming like he’s got a number one album out.
D: The beats are knee-deep Dre-Tang. And the story-sketches are ticklish. [imitating] “East-sigh-hide.” Hip-hop album of the year, no question.
Rehearsing My Choir
C: Fiery Furnaces one-upping Danger Doom, doing an album-length story thing. And no, that’s not Larry Bud Melman, that’s Eleanor and Matt Friedberger’s grandmother Olga Sarantas.
D: If that’s really her name.
C: It’s a family art project. You see, the Furnaces have the family values everyone else has abandoned. The family that records together stays together, D.
D: It’s a Friedberger Family Affair. It’s also obviously beautiful but I can’t tell you too much about it. I can tell you about some other things.
C: We all know that without a steady beat you are lost in the wilderness.
D: It’s true, I have to admit.
C: So you’ll like the disco hit here. And
D: Best dance song this year not made by the Juan Maclean!
C: My favorite other part of the album is when Eleanor sings, “Once upon a time there were two Kevins,” and Olga harrumphs, “You mean two jerks!” Perfect. Everyone loves feisty old women who take a stand. It’s a cool album—a record you actually have to sit and pay attention to, and you actually enjoy doing that for once because the music is unpredictable but never trying, there’s interplay between distinctive voices, the lyrics are fantastically evocative and funny, and of course there’s Eleanor.
D: Obviously a work of advanced idiosyncratic genii. Their fourth in a row. Unbelievable!
Van der Graaf Generator
H to He Who am the Only One
The least we can do is wave to each other
C: Speaking of idiosyncratic genius: here’s three reissues of prime Van der Graaf Generator from 1970-1.
D: You warned me of the coming of the progressive rock, but…! [smiling] I can tell you one thing: we’re not in M.O.T.O. anymore, Kansas.
C: Totally visionary, harsh and beautiful stuff that never gets insulting or hairy dippy. They went for it.
D: They were always like the single prog band you were allowed like if you were punk, because Johnny Rotten mentioned them in interviews. Which meant it was approved with a capital A with a circle round it.
C: How great and defiantly, proudly varied Johnny’s taste was: he was talking Beefheart, VDGG, Can, dub reggae while constructing the snide glam that we call punk rock. It shows. Pete Hammill’s voice here goes all the way out to a sneer or cry in the same way that Johnny would eeenunnnnceeeaate. [thoughtfully] You could argue that punk was exciting to the degree that its makers allowed in something musically beyond the Ramones… That’s why of all the so-called punk rock to follow in the wake of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, almost the only good stuff came through SST, where the bands were extremely open-valved. Black Flag listened to King Crimson and the Grateful Dead, fer crissakes.
The Way Things Work
C: Speaking of SST: Zappa-essque California collab improv between vets George Hurley, Mike Watt and Joe Baiza and Dan McGuire. Baiza works out some knots on the guitar, given jamspace by minutemen/fIRESHOSErs Hurley & Watt with McGuire on the mircophone spouting the observational storytelling. “Metaphors unfurling… justice contaminated by sentiment!/shutting the drapes/I imbibe on quintessence from the skulls of old masters.”
D: It’s not SST 1986 but it’s close. And that means it’s very good.
Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom
The Days of Mars
D: [leaning back] And now, we journey deep into the heart of the Moog analog synthesizer and its universe of possibilities. Could this be Cluster? Tangerine Dream?
C: It’s actually a male-female duo—two visual artists who make music together too. They are two Americans alive in Berlin. [thinking] You know, I would like to be an American living in Berlin right now…Whoa: we are three minutes into the first track and it keeps getting louder.
D: Yes. It’s beautiful and hypnotic and changes slowly but when it does… Wow… [eyes closed, smiling]